Speaker: Prof. Bill Jeffery (Assistant Professor, University of Guam)
Time: 4:00 - 6:00 pm, 16th November, 2018 (Friday)
Venue: LT4 Esther Lee Building, Chung Chi College, CUHK
Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong 香港中文大學人類學系
Sichuan Archaeology Research Institute, China 四川省文物考古研究院
University Library, The Chinese University of Hong Kong 香港中文大學圖書館
Text: Wong Pui Lim, Ginny (Research Assistant)
Maritime archaeology (underwater archaeology) is a relatively new discipline in the anthropology field, focusing on the submerged sites, artifacts, human remains and landscapes. However, with a similar background as archaeology, maritime archaeology commenced with a fascination and collection of curios or antiquities and not always with a motivation to preserve and study the archaeological record for the benefit of the general public. Apart from the monetarily value from artifacts, sites such as Nanhai No. I Shipwreck in China and the Hong Kong waters could potentially contain sites of great interest in China’s maritime activities. How to study these submerged treasures and how to manage them have become a heated debate for Hong Kong, China, Asia Pacific area and all over the world. On 16th November 2018, Prof. Bill Jeffery, who has been involved in maritime archaeology for over 30 years, gave a public lecture on these issues and activities in addition to placing the region’s maritime archaeology into the world context, particularly in association with UNESCO and its Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
For archaeologists, treasures of the deep are ‘treasures’ with regards to their historical value instead of their monetarily value. Prof. Jeffery presented his experience in studying various maritime archaeological sites and highlighted the importance of these ‘treasures’ as cultural heritage rather than merely exotic things for auctions and collecting. Archaeologists study the sites and artifacts, together with its context and maritime environment, and come up with different conservation and management plans.
There are various types of underwater cultural heritage, from shipwrecks like Titanic and Nanhai No. 1 to sunken ruins and cities like of the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt. These traces of human existence in the past was buried at bottom of lakes, seas and oceans, safely preserved by the submarine environment. Among these heritages, Prof. Jeffery especially addressed on ships. Ships have been ‘the largest and most complex objects produced in most socializes before the industrial revolution’ as Prof. Jeffery described. Ships have been the most important source of transportation until the advent of aircraft and the result of the leading edge of technologies of most preindustrial societies since Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age). It also has an important role in the ancient world, from the building of extraordinary buildings such as pyramids and obelisks to the growth of towns and cities.
Since the 1970s, over 50 shipwrecks have been investigated in and around China that highlighted the trade between China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. Nanhai No. 1 Shipwreck in China is one of the examples that had provided rich information about trade in the 13th century. Prof. Jeffery was the trainer to teach the first generation of Chinese maritime archaeologists and assisted with the investigation of Nanhai No. I Shipwreck in the 1990s. Frame, layers and construction of the ship are studied. Silt, coral and other maritime environment protected the heritage especially for wood like timbre which is comparatively difficult to surface on land. The shipwreck is a Fukien type (Foochow junk) during the Song dynasty, loaded with numerous set of good quality ceramics, coins and foreign style artifacts such as the gilt belt. Some of the artifacts are of Islamic style, suggesting the connection between Song and the Middle East. A stone stock from the anchor is also found. The stone stock of similar style and material was found in waters off High Island in Hong Kong by members of Hong Kong Underwater Heritage Group. It represented the maritime trade that linked China with Hong Kong and the overseas during Song dynasty, as well as the shipbuilding and ceramics development history of China. Shipwrecks and documents reflected the ‘Four Oceans Navigation’ before foreign contact. China built the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum and salvage the shipwreck and its cargoes as a whole for indoor excavation. It is a new practice that allows archaeologists to excavate the underwater heritage on land. The excavation is also showcased in the museum for visitors. However, Prof. Jeffery pointed out that there are problems brought by the change of the water environment of the shipwreck. Further regulations to the physical and chemical components are needed for easing degradation and for permanent preservation of the Nanhai No. I Shipwreck.
In the talk, Prof. Jeffery discussed the issue of pillaging or commercial exploitation attempts on the underwater cultural heritage sites. Collectors and treasure hunters have taken their toll on terrestrial and underwater sites, recovering and collecting artifacts for selling or keeping as personal possessions. Tek Sing is one of the examples. The ship was carrying thousands of immigrants sailing from China to Batavia yet sank, causing a tragic disaster. The shipwreck was discovered with human remains and countless ceramics. However, the excavation was motivated by treasure hunting which valuable ceramics found were sold and auctioned to private owners for a huge profit. The controversy of commercial underwater archaeology happened again in the case of Belitung shipwreck in Indonesia. Commercial trade is allowed by the government and the excavated artifacts are kept by the Indonesian government and sold to Singapore with millions of dollars, despite the truth that the ship belonged to China and part of the history of its people. Prof. Jeffery pointed out that the shipwreck was excavated within a short period that much of the information it might have provided about the ship’s crew and cargo was lost. An academic and comprehensive archaeological excavation is absent that important knowledge about our shared history is lost forever.
Finally, Prof. Jeffery drew the attention to the urgent need to developed maritime archaeology in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong waters, located in a significant part of the maritime Silk Road, could potentially contain sites of great interest in China’s maritime activities. The Song Dynasty anchor stock found in Hong Kong waters suggested a tantalizing link between Hong Kong and the other parts of the world in the past. Currently, the research on Hong Kong's underwater heritage excavation is supported by The Hong Kong Underwater Heritage Group (HKUHG), a group of maritime archaeology trained divers who voluntarily implementing a host of maritime archaeology activities. They are developing underwater archaeological sites database through analyzing and consolidating data for almost 300 Hong Kong sites in a wrecks database from the United Kingdom’s Hydrographic Office (UKHO). Hong Kong Maritime Museum also provided basic training in maritime archaeology. There are a lot of maritime cultural landscapes and seascapes in Hong Kong that worth more attention from government and the community. Prof. Jeffery shared his idea of training more divers and maritime archaeologists in Hong Kong to assist with local research and to protect cultural heritage.